How to use Yin yoga and Zen for a meditative mind
Sitting down to meditate may seem like a simple matter to accomplish — but then why do so many of us find it so hard, get overwhelmed so easily by what physical stillness stirs in our beautiful minds and give up before we reap the benefits?
One of the most-talked-about hindrances to establishing and continuing a meditation practice is the specious belief that meditation process should be calm, leading to the assumption by many that unless your mind is serene and focused you feel you’re doing it wrong; you feel frustrated and conclude it is not for you. Zen teaches that meditation is not a skill but rather a practice you dedicate yourself to and there is no right or wrong way to do it, although being disciplined is a requirement.
Practices like yoga and meditation cultivate a contemplative mind and, with that, not only affect your meditation and yoga practice but also awaken you, most importantly, to your whole life, teaching self-acceptance, compassion and living in the moment.
Zen teaches that meditation is not a skill but rather a practice you dedicate yourself to.
Cultivating meditative awareness will encourage introspection, enabling you to examine what is going on in your life and teach you to recognise and experience a multitude of emotions — anger, agitation, frustration, boredom, pleasure — without being affected or overcome by them. Yin yoga and Zen meditation practices are tools that are complementary to each other and conducive in teaching you to cultivate a meditative mind and gain insight.
First, you can develop body awareness and feel your emotions as you are guided through a slow yin practice and then by the means of zazen (sitting meditation).
What is Zen?
Zen (Ch’an) is one of the schools of Buddhism that initially was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE; it then spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan before its popularisation in the West at the end of the 19th century.
The name “Zen” itself is a Japanese version of the Chinese word Cha’n, as Japanese monks journeyed to the southern part of China to study Zen and, due to the transmission of these teachings to the West from Japan, we have adopted the Japanese name.
Yin yoga is highly effective in training the body to become still, developing focus and patience and facilitating self-inquiry through observation of physical, mental and emotional distractions, which naturally surface throughout this deep yoga practice.
Both Ch’an and Zen are derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which is the seventh limb of the eight limbs of yoga. This is presented, together with dharana (concentration) and samadhi (blissful absorption and fulfilment: the ultimate goal of yoga), in Vibhuti Pada, the third book of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras — the chapter on progressions that can be achieved through the practice of yoga.
Dhyana, and with it Zen, translates as “contemplation” or “meditation”, fundamentally meaning “the meditative mind”, which Patanjali himself described as “effortless concentration on watching the mind”.
While Zen encompasses a multitude of spiritual practices inclusive of sitting meditations, ceremonies, koans, retreats, time with teachers and Zen scriptures, Zen is more concerned with emphasising the practice of being alive in the present moment over philosophical understanding.
Zen is vast and inexhaustible. It is the concept that cannot be described in words. Nor can it be conceptualised, as it needs to be experienced. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the aspects of Zen that relate to yoga and meditation.
What is yin yoga?
Yin yoga is a softer, more natural and meditative style of yoga compared to more dynamic and vigorous styles such as vinyasa, and has existed from the very beginning of yoga.
The poses in yin yoga are held for a period of time, applying traction of the connective tissues and enhancing energy flow (chi) through water-rich channels of the connective tissues, the location of which corresponds to the location of the major meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine, demonstrated by Dr Hiroshi Motoyama.
While being complementary to more yang practices and busy lifestyles, yin yoga is highly effective in training the body to become still, developing focus and patience and facilitating self-inquiry through observation of physical, mental and emotional distractions, which naturally surface throughout this deep yoga practice.
Yin yoga for meditative mind
Shunryu Suzuki, considered a founding father of Zen in the US and one of the most distinguished and influential spiritual teachers, emphasised that the goal of Zen practice is to keep “beginner’s mind”. He taught, “In the beginner’s mind there’s many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are a few.”
Beginner’s mind is the empty mind, free of habitual patterns or expertise. It is the fresh attentive and discovering mind — the mind open to everything — that sees things as they are.
Most ashrams, meditation centres and monastic institutions engage in early-morning meditations before the world awakens. This time of the day is considered auspicious, with the mind being in liminal state.
When applied to zazen meditation and yin yoga, beginner’s means “just sitting and breathing” or “just remaining still in a yin yoga pose” without any preconceptions: being present and alive, allowing yourself to feel and be with whatever surfaces and fades away, without any agenda or predeterminations.
This yin sequence is designed to prepare your mind and body for a seated meditation practice and includes introspective forward folds, which will help decompress your spine, as well as hip-opening poses that will help increase mobility and flexibility in your hips, targeting your hip flexors and hamstrings together with your inner and outer thighs and aiding with the proper pelvis alignment.
The practice will conclude with a backbend to re-establish your natural spinal curve after the lengthy hip-opening sequence and a supine spinal twist of your choice that will act as a counter-pose to the prior postures in this deep sequence.
When practising this sequence, ensure you are neither forcing your body into the postures nor tensing your muscles. Relax and allow time and gravity for your tissues to respond to the healthy stress you will be applying to them over the long holds of these deep yin poses.
- Begin seated on the floor or elevate your hips by sitting on the edge of a cushion and bring the soles of your feet together.
- Slide your feet away from your groin so that you feel the stretch in your inner thighs (adductors) and fold forward on exhalation, relaxing your hands onto your ankles, your feet or the floor.
- Allow your back to round and relax your head towards your feet. Stay for 4-5 minutes.
- To come out of Butterfly, use your hands to push the floor away from you and take a short rest on your back.
- Sit on the floor and start to fold forward from your hips, allowing your back to round. If your hamstrings or lower back feel tense, you can sit on a cushion or bend your knees. Another alternative is to place a bolster of rolled blanket under your knees if this position is too intense on your hamstrings, which are targeted in Caterpillar pose.
- Relax your arms allowing your palms to face up.
- Stay here for 4–5 minutes, then rest in savasana for 2 minutes, feeling the effects of the full forward fold.
Low Flying Dragon
- Begin on your hands and knees. Take a big step with your right foot forward, entering a low lunge position. Slide your back knee back enough to feel your left hip flexors lengthening (use padding under your back knee, if needed).
- If it feels natural, you can turn your front toes out and/or roll onto the outer edge of the right foot, too.
- Keep your hand on the inside of your front foot. If the pose feels too intense, use the block to rest your hands on or elbows on. Or, if you are comfortable to go deeper, you can rest your forearms on the floor.
- Stay in the pose for 3 minutes before taking a short savasana and repeating on the other side.
- Enter the pose by lying on your back with the soles of your feet flat on the floor.
- Cross your right ankle over your left thigh just above your left knee. Keeping your head and shoulders on the mat, thread your right arm through the space between your inner thighs and, lifting your left foot off the floor, interlace your fingers. If this is unapproachable, holding onto a strap/belt, thread it through between your inner thighs, wrapping it around your left shin. The purpose of this pose is to open your top outer hip and should be felt in your right gluteal muscles and right outer thigh (iliotibial band).
- Remain in the pose for 4 minutes before taking a rebound pose (like savasana) and repeating on the other side.
- Lie prone (face down) on the floor and bring your elbows under (or in front of your shoulders for the gentler backbend variation), either resting the forearms on the floor with your palms down or clasping the opposite elbows.
- Take your feet as wide as you need to to feel safe compression in your lower back.
- Stay in Sphinx for 4–5 minutes before exiting it by lowering to the floor and taking a minute to rest on your abdomen.
- Round up the practice with a supine twist before resting on your back in savasana.
Cultivate meditative mind with zazen meditation
Zazen, a form of shikantaza (just sitting), refers to Zen meditation and means “sitting meditation”, merely sitting and not doing anything else. It is the practice of “being present”.
You may be aware that it is not that simple to just to sit as, once the stillness in sitting is found, you begin to really notice the activity in the thinking mind fluctuating from the past into the future, not being aware what is happening right in the moment of sitting. Hence, the instructions for zazen include focusing your awareness on the present moment, observing your physical body and with that paying attention to your posture, your breath and your thoughts without trying to suppress them.
“What we experience as barriers are self-created and sustained by nothing more substantial than a thought that is repeated over and over,” explains psychologist and Zen Buddhism priest Tim Burkett in his book Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives.
“With meditative awareness, we look closely at what we perceive as barriers and hindrances until we see through them,” continues the author. “Then we realise that the barrier was actually a gateway to clear-seeing. When we see beyond a barrier, our brain changes; new neural pathways [also known as neural plasticity] are created.”
Most ashrams, meditation centres and monastic institutions engage in early-morning meditations before the world awakens. This time of the day is considered auspicious, with the mind being in liminal state. If you choose to practise at the end of the day it is also beneficial, as it will assist you in slowing down and processing the events and stresses of the day.
Create a clean, quiet meditation space for your zazen practice. You may find a small ritual helpful: eg lighting a candle, placing a cushion (zafu) to meditate on, striking a singing bowl or burning non-toxic incense to signal to your brain that you intend to commence your meditation practice. Decide how long your practice will be (15–30 minutes) and set the timer.
Firstly, arrange your body in preparation for zazen. The correct posture is important in zazen as, just like in yoga, your body, breath and mind are interconnected. When your spine is in good alignment, your breathing will be more effortless and with that your mind will be more focused; in reverse, with ease in your breath and concentration of the mind, you may notice sitting becoming easier.
- Sit forward with your buttocks resting on the edge of the cushion with your spine long and straight, crown of the head extended upward, shoulders relaxed.
- Place your legs in the position that is comfortable enough for you to maintain for the duration of the practice. You can either sit in sukhasana (Easy Pose, with your ankles crossed), Burmese (with your feet in front of each other) or ardha padmasana (half lotus, where one foot is placed on the opposite thigh), provided the chosen pose does not cause you much discomfort and agony. You can also choose seiza, which is a kneeling position sitting on a stack of cushions, a yoga block or over the length of your bolster, as you would sit on a horse. If your physical condition does not allow you to sit on the floor, choose to sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor, maintaining straight spine and without leaning back.
- Keep your head neutral without tilting it, your mouth closed and tongue relaxed.
- Place your hands into cosmic mudra, forming an oval shape, by placing your left palm on top of the right with both palms resting on your lap and facing upward with your thumbs gently touching.
- Close your eyes, or lower them, allowing them to go out of focus.
- Keeping your abdominals relaxed, bring your complete attention to your breath.
- In zazen, counting the breath is considered a foundational practice to unite your mind with the breath by the means of counting, especially as you begin Zen practice. When you inhale, remain present with the breath, feeling the sensation of inhaling in the body. When your exhalation naturally comes, count it to yourself: “One.” Then count the next exhalation, “Two”, until you have reached the count of 10. After that, keep repeating this cycle until your timer signals you to complete the practice. If thoughts arise, notice them calmly and with exhalations return to the count without self-recrimination.
With regular practice, you will find that counting will eventually fall away and you will be able to just follow the breath. But until you are consistently able to hold the count and be reasonably present with it, without getting bored or lost in fluctuations of the mind (thoughts, physical sensations, images, emotions, reactions, memories), it is recommended to stick with this method of counting. Whenever you find yourself caught in the mind, try to notice (without judgement) what draws you away and remember to return your attention to the present moment of being alive: your body, breath and counting for the duration of your meditation practice, in zazen.
“When you are practising zazen, do not try to stop your thinking,” teaches Shunryu Suzuki in one of his discourses recorded in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. “Let it stop by itself.
“If something comes to your mind, let it come in, and let it go out … When you try to stop thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything.”
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